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Is this the oldest festival in town?

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: May 03, 2014

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Communities all over the UK stage special festivals which are related to something that is unique to their village, town, city or area but, other than the jamboree being held in Lyme Regis this weekend, no such annual event will celebrate a world that existed many millions of years ago.

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is believed to be the only one of its kind in the UK or even Europe – and many thousands of Jurassic and Mesozoic enthusiasts will be in town today now that the event is in full pre-historic swing.

Yesterday, children from all over Devon and Dorset attended the festival's special schools' day and were treated to all manner of very ancient treats, but today and tomorrow it is the general public's turn to learn a lot, lot more about a world of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and scelidosaurs – as well as plain old ammonites and other fascinating sea creatures turned to stone.

The theme of this year's festival is "citizen science" – which, to some degree, relates to the woman who first put Lyme Regis on the world's fossiling map.

Mary Anning (born 1799) was the daughter of a local cabinet-maker who occasionally made a few extra shillings collecting fossils to sell to early tourists. One of ten children, Mary took up hunting for the ancient creatures in the area's Blue Lias cliffs to help supplement the family's funds.

Like the fossil hunters today, she quickly learned winter provided the most fruitful time of year after landslides had exposed new specimens. It was perilous work – she was almost killed during a landslide in 1833. Her pet dog, Tray, was not so lucky.

Mary's discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just 12 – and this helped make a name for Lyme Regis.

"She found the first scientifically described ichthyosaur in 1811, the first complete plesiosaur in 1823, and a dimorphodon – the first flying reptile discovered in Britain – in 1829," said David Tucker, director of the Lyme Regis Museum, which stands on the site of the Anning's old family home.

"Significant fossils are found all the time – that is what makes our coast special," said Mr Tucker. "Because the rocks are laid down in horizontal bands, one can discover fossils of the same age as those discovered by Mary Anning as the coast erodes. Coastal erosion is what makes fossil hunting possible.

"There have been many significant finds," Mr Tucker continued. "Most of which tend to be marine creatures – the rock being laid down in marine conditions. The most significant fossil that I know of to come from our rocks is on display at Bristol Museum. It is the complete skeleton of a scelidosaur.

To find out more on the festival, visit fossilfestival.co.uk and on fossils, lymeregismuseum.co.uk

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